From Ghana

This diary was originally published on KOS.

From Ghana: Analysis of Obama Visit (Part 2)

by zizi [

Mon Jul 13, 2009 at 08:13:34 AM PDT

Hello fellow Kossacks,

Greetings from Ghana. This is Part 2 of the diary I posted on Wednesday offering analyses of President Obama’s visit to Ghana. In Part 1, I briefly discussed background context to US-Ghana relations, and the preparations underway in anticipation of Obama’s arrival.

So here we are. The visit is now over, and we take stock.

I was fortunate enough to secure an invitation to the Accra International Conference Center (AICC) where President Obama delivered his Africa Policy speech on Saturday after an earlier visit to a USAID-funded La Polyclinic, followed by breakfast at the seat of government – Osu Castle, with Ghana’s President John Atta-Mills, former presidents Rawlings and Kufuor, as well as dignitaries. One newspaper reported today that the Obamas ate local food of Ga people – i.e. Kenkey, hot pepper sauce, and grilled fish. Very nice!

At the Accra International Conference Center, the room was filled with the big-wigs of Ghana, Government Ministers, Members of Parliament, the Diplomatic corps, traditional rulers, heads of key businesses, party apparatchiks of both the ruling NDC administration and the NPP opposition, and the odd professor or two like me. The atmosphere was exciting yet relatively sedate with controlled applause, compared to the exuberance of the Ghanaian people outside dancing and cheering.

Unfortunately, security was so overwhelming that many folks felt badly let down that they did not get the chance to see “the People’s President.” The local Joy 99.7 FM interviewed disappointed travelers who had come to Ghana from neighboring countries and from as far away as Senegal and Nigeria, without getting a chance to see the US President. I asked one government official why the ordinary people were totally shut out, and was told that the US Secret Service forbid any large public interactions because they wanted to avoid the scenario that took place when President Clinton came to Ghana in 1998. He was practically mobbed. A simple solution, in my opinion, would have been for the state or a consortium of the many companies that underwrote advertising of the Obama visit, to offer the crowds a vicarious experience of the events in both Accra and Cape Coast. In addition to the television coverage, they could have sponsored for the crowds that gathered, a live feed of the policy speech on giant screens (which already exist) at the Ohene Djan Sports Stadium and the brand new Hockey stadium situated barely a half mile from the Accra International Conference Center (inclement weather notwithstanding).

In Cape Coast where the Obamas visited the slave fort – Cape Coast Castle, and the palace of the Oguaa Chief (of Cape Coast), the crowds were similarly excited yet disappointed that they had no opportunity to see President Obama’s remarks given while there. Nevertheless, the mood remained upbeat with local residents stating that they understood the need for all the souped up security arrangements for this particular US President. At the airport later in the early evening, prior to departure, the crowd that gathered there did finally get the chance to see and hear Pres. Obama. Everybody else simply stayed glued to their teevee sets all day.

My other beef was that not a single local Ghanaian journalist was granted an interview with President Obama, yet Anderson Cooper of CNN gets one. Yes, Obama had an interview with prior to his arrival in Ghana, but a local interview would have helped cut through the physical security cordon and enabled the US president to directly hear from the local media that he praised so much in his speech for their critical work in advancing democracy in Ghana.

So, the 22-hour visit came to an end without a hitch (that we know of), with lots of postcards for both Ghanaian and US audiences to smile over. But the glossy memories aside, what did this 3rd sitting US president’s visit mean compared to the previous two? What is there to be “gained,” by whom, and at whose expense, or would it be mutual? Were the questions and suspicions about US interest in Ghana allayed by the statements that Obama himself made? What exactly are his words and promises worth? How much does Obama’s conciliatory posture reflect an actual change in the attitudes of a CRITICAL MASS of the power centers of US society toward Africa? This last question is extremely important since we are also seeing its resonance in the way Obama’s domestic US agenda is shaping up inside the United States. The recalcitrant power structures (overlords of the US and global economy, Military Industrial complex, Healthcare industrial complex, and organized narcotics/weaponry mafias etc) have been hard at work neutering Obama’s personal popularity, while defanging his capacity to effect any change at all of the status quo, even with the super majorities of his own party in power.

Various Sunday and Monday morninglocal television discussion shows, as well as today’s newspapers have dissected the tangible benefits (or lack thereof) of the US President’s visit. On the state-owned television station (GTV) Breakfast Show program this morning, panelists agreed that there was nothing particularly new and tangible in Obama’s Africa Policy speech, save the continuation of Bush’s HIV/AIDS program and $63 billion pledge for comprehensive health initiatives on the continent. Yet, the difference in tone was significant to the Ghanaian audience as well as the promise to work in “partnership” with, rather than laud it over African countries. No one realistically expected a shower of goodies, knowing the current state of the US economy. There was the sense that this was a trip to lay the groundwork for a more sustained and constructive relationship down the road. That melds with everyday Ghanaian sensibilities that “difficult things take time.” The GTV Breakfast Show host noted that Obama’s coming to Ghana/African continent this EARLY in his administration as part of a trip that took him to Moscow and the G-8 summit in L’Aquila, as his larger foreign policy agenda is being shaped showed that for once African countries were not an afterthought in US policy.

On the question of “tangible benefits,” I actually saw this as a case of two parties talking on different wavelengths. On the Ghanaian side it seemed that people did not fully realize the limitations on the power of the US President to himself direct businesses investment to Ghana or pony up aid without Congress’s consent. At any rate, the local consensus across the board, from people in the streets to government officials, was that the Obama visit put Ghana in the international media spotlight. To Ghanaians, this presented the opportunity for the country to consolidate good impressions about the emerging favorable climate for business partnerships (quite a loaded term) with outside investors within and without the African region. Indeed, local businesses were jostling to sponsor Obama-related advertizing. Those who attended the policy speech delivery got a glossy magazine titled “Corporate Ghanaian” that featured stories about President Obama, insightful letters to the editor, and several business adverts. I have no information on whether a special trade/business team came along with the US President to discuss specific deals (and if so, what would the terms be that truly benefit Ghanaian partners?). In Cape Coast, local residents and event planners anticipated an increase in tourism to the area as a result of the Obama visit (this is still a touchy subject for some African Americans who balk at the idea of “monetizing” their ancestral trauma).

I think Obama could have extended his call for African Self Reliance to include the vigorous pursuit of intra-African trade in value-added goods and services (the booming cell-phone industry across borders in one healthy example). After all that is one of the constructive ways to shift away from the disastrous colonial legacy of non-value-added resource extraction for the Euro-American and Asian commodity markets. One salient point that one policy analyst raised in today’s local papers is that the best thing President Obama could do for Ghana and Africa is to enforce tax law compliance to stop US companies operating on the African continent from evading their tax liabilities to the host countries. No surprise there, as far as the behavior of US business behemoths are concerned. They are a law unto themselves both at home and abroad!!!


Anyway, as I indicated in my first diary, a section of the local commentariat also debated the “real” motives for President Obama’s choice of Ghana for the launch of his Africa policy. They posited that Obama was here to:

1. Revisit George W. Bush’s quest to establish US military “lily pads” on the African continent and headquarter AFRICOM (African Command) in Ghana to fight “War on Terror” and al-qaeda affiliates on the continent.

2. Secure a foothold on Ghana’s recently discovered offshore oil deposits (in line with Cheney’s energy blueprint to shift 25% of US oil imports to Gulf of Guinea oil (i.e. the coastal West African region), fend off China’s spreading influence among natural resource-rich African countries.

3. Curtail narco-trafficking, in Ghana and influence the entire West African region.

My reading of the visit is actually the opposite. He did mention the African Command in the speech alright, and the need to develop good stewardship of oil revenues that would accrue in the near future. But, President Obama did not need an ulterior motive hidden behind his stated reasons for coming to Ghana. The motives were there, uttered in plain sight. He came to win LOYAL FRIENDS, and staunch the transformation of OLD FRIENDS into new ADVERSARIES. In his thinking, African countries, properly wooed and nurtured, have the potential to be low-maintenance allies (talk about the toddler tantrums of the likes of Bibi Netanyahu!). A popular local comedian, Kweku Sintim Missah (KSM) summed it best when the BBC world service radio interviewed him a couple of days ago. He said Obama chose Ghana because “Ghanaians don’t ask for much;” they want respect and fairness in their dealings with the global system. That’s all.

Humor aside, if the Cold War taught the US nothing, at least it must have revealed some clear truths: that, south of the Sahara, many Africans (with notable exceptions) having emerged from forced labor and conscription to fight in Europe’s wars under colonialism, are today no longer prepared to die for somebody else’s cause in which they have zero personal stake. Self/community preservation and ethnic loyalties (both positive and negative) still run deeper than the ideological allegiances that either superpower sought to entrench on the African continent. If that is the case, then a positive courtship finessed through the likes of Obama’s diplomatic style, and which focuses on MAXIMIZING mutually beneficial elements will likely win more friends on the continent than the prior ugly cowboy American swagger (on a lighter side note, one official asked me why President Obama walked with such a hip-hop-like swagger when he was inspecting the Guard of Honor at the Osu Castle seat of government. I told him, “yeah, that’s a brotha’s swagga”).

However, this window of opportunity to meaningfully reset US-Africa relations will NOT remain indefinitely open. Past (and current) US shenanigans on the continent are not dim in anyone’s memories here. Indeed, the continent’s Chinese suitors are busy buying her an engagement ring already, following the blitz of the African Summit in Beijing in 2007, and construction projects sprinkled here and there. So-called al qaeda affiliates are stirring up the pot in the Sahel region (Mali, northern Nigeria) in addition to the Horn of Africa and North Africa. Medvedev belatedly came here waving gas and oil deals about. So many exploiters to choose from, so little time! But Obama has one thing the others don’t have, besides blood ties. Brand cache! He sells America (albeit a weakened one) and its ideals better than anyone else currently; which is why I can’t figure out the wingnuts shortsightedness in attacking his overtures to friends and foes abroad. Why would you want to make countless enemies when you are so BROKE, when you could catch flies with honey? Beats me.

Even the blood ties to the continent alone are not enough. There is a gut sense among Ghanaians and many Africans that at the very least he will not look down on them or mess them up; that his own experiences with his extended African family and growing up in Indonesia enable him to understand the NUANCES of their own lives in developing countries. Incidentally, the very attributes that make him exotic to many Americans, actually make him even more familiar to Ghanaians. Being of mixed race and living in different cultural environments has been quite common since the Portuguese arrived in the 15th Century, and even more so today with so many recent African migrants to Europe, America (like Obama’s own father), and Asia having mixed race children. Examples were right there on the stage and audience with him; — the speaker of the Parliament, Joyce Bamford Addo, former President Jerry Rawlings, or current Minister of Trade and industry, Hannah Tetteh.


During the speech, a particular line stood out for me in its simplicity yet profound weight. It was not a rhetorical flourish. It was the naked truth. A globally-known fact, even if many Americans bury their heads in the sand about it. Washington DC, Moscow, and Accra are exactly equal in this 21st century global village. He aptly stated that:

I have come here, to Ghana, for a simple reason: the 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra as well.

The statement is profound for the simple reason that same forces (technological, political, financial, and even military) that foster the so-called positives of globalization, can equally unleash untold mayhem. That is, positive and negative power around the globe is irreversibly decentered and recalibrated, with fast mutating destabilizing trigger points (the “good ole days” of American unbridled power ain’t coming back). A small financial investment, expendable lives, a potent twisted ideology, and a plan hatched in multiple locations brought the United States to its knees on 9/11/2001. That cyber attack on the White House and government agencies last week could have been launched from computers in Accra as much as anywhere else. Nuclear weapons are irrelevant to fighting these new threats. People around the world know this. Obama GETS it (whether you like his proposed solutions or not). Sadly the right wing troglodytes in the United States, electorally defeated as they are (for now), STILL cannot see beyond their inflated noses, blinkered cold-war lens and PNAC pipe dreams.

Obama cannot but dismantle the hydra-headed destabilizing monsters that the US itself misguidedly supported during the Cold War era on the African continent. Why? Because current US interests depend on them being dismantled. It is the classic case of rushing to forestall additional blowback (things coming back to bite “ya ass”), as happened with Saddam Hussein after he had aided US interests against Iran, and Osama bin Laden’s Mujahedeen contra the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

In Africa, the US desperately NEEDS democracy to work so much so that I believe it would instantly clone the continent’s “bright spots” like Ghana, Botswana, Tanzania, Senegal (despite recent rumblings) if it could, simply to buy peace of mind and prevent the replication of more Somalias, Madagascars, Guinea Bissaus, Sudans etc. He aptly stated that:

This is about more than holding elections – it’s also about what happens between them.

I think Obama’s is a cold clear-eyed calculation that may or may not have anything to do with the “value” of democracy itself to the African people, and more to do with the negatives of globalization, vis-à-vis Africa’s capacity NOW to “strike back” to become a debilitating thorn in US’s side. Triaging Africa’s failing states to some passable form of democratic and economic health is the only way to save the US itself from hemorrhaging further.

You see, when their own countries are messed up through conflict, economic and political asphyxiation, natural resource depletion, and meddling from external powers, Africans too have the uncanny capacity to show up at Europe’s and America’s doorsteps no matter how high the barriers, inn order to survive. They can trek through desert, and stow away in ships. Some can sit at cyber cafés and launch “419” schemes; launder credit cards of money, or run weapons and narcotics. Only now, geographical distance, military might, and old fashioned bullying cannot insulate the United States from untold harm. The porosity of US security is known to all, as is the weakness of the US economy, the shallowness of its military bluster, or the uncertain future of its human capital (slipping levels of education).

In Africa, if Obama is to achieve a meaningful breakthrough, then he has to creatively fight multiple proxy battles against entrenched interests headquartered in his own country, namely:

1. The arms and narco-trafficking cartels (both are sometimes one and the same) who profit from conflicts on the continent, and spawning failed states. Civil society empowerment (not just what Pres. Obama himself called “sprinkling elections inbetween” authoritarianism) is anathema to the cartels.

2. Multinational companies profiting from natural resource conflicts (i.e. diamond, uranium), environmental degradation, and dis-empowering local farmers.

3. Banking interests that would rather shelter illicit wealth creamed off by kleptocratic African leaders, than actually make profit rendering real financial services to the people.

Just as the too-big-to-fail financial institutions earlier this year revealed their capacity to bring the entire global system to its knees, forestalling the wholesale failure of African states is a fight he must wage in concert with African civil society activists and “responsible” governments, since these supra-national entities threaten not only Africans welfare but US’s own security interests. I especially welcomed that he singled out a courageous Ghanaian journalist, Anas, and a whistleblower for recognition in his speech.

The part of the speech that reiterated the need for Africans to be responsible for their own countries, despite the ills of colonialism, may have sounded trite, possibly disingenuous, or even condescending. Interestingly, local talking heads indicated that Obama stated a “truth” that needed to be aired out (then again maybe that’s the effect of the Obama “koolaid,” who knows?). How can Obama say these things and get away with it? It had something to do with his demonstrated intellectual and personal knowledge of the nuances of African “wahalas” (mixture of joys and problems). Simply put, he knew what the hell he was talking about, and delivered it in a tone that did not grate on people’s nerves. In a society that traditionally prizes oratory (“speaking well and discretely”), Obama’s speaking skills render him all the more familiar to Ghanaians. The audience appreciated that before he spoke, Obama acknowledged the significance of the “talking” horn (just like the talking drum) that tooted his appellation. “Ah the man knows African tradition,” said the lady sitting beside me at the Accra International Conference Center.

In the taxicab I took back home after the policy speech, I asked the cab driver what he thought of the Obama visit compared to Clinton’s and Bush’s. He said he was too young when Clinton came, but as for Bush, no one was that interested in his presence. I then told him that Bush purportedly pledged bold financial support for HIV/AIDS treatment, and the Millennium Challenge Fund. He thought for a moment and said, “but I didn’t trust Bush,” and if there was any aid, only the “big people chopped it” (i.e. government officials dissipated/embezzled it). Obama, “he says we should hold our leaders accountable. I like him.”

Hmm…trust is a very finicky currency…

Back at home, as I watched Pres. Obama’s remarks following the First Family’s tour of the Cape Coast Castle, I could not help but notice the razor edge tinge to his statement about the church built directly above the male slave dungeon. I wondered if it was a veiled response to Pope Benedict XVI’s mantras over abortion and stem cell research. Talk about the Roman Catholic church (of which I am a member) doing nothing to stop two of the worst atrocities in recent history – the Slave trade and the Holocaust! A visit to any of those slave forts calls for immense psychological fortitude. I similarly visited both Cape Coast and Elmina castles in Ghana many years ago, as well as Goree Island off the coast of Senegal a couple of years ago. Different locations, same evidence of misery. In Senegal, the “governor’s” living quarters were directly above the female dungeons while his balcony overlooked the “Door of no return.” I particularly choked upon seeing the Goree Island exhibit of mirrors and rifles. We were told that men were bought from complicit indigenous African neighbors with rifles, and women, exchanged for mirrors. Yeah, shiny baubles, indeed! Malia and Sasha will certainly have a ton of stories to tell their extended family and school mates in the Fall, about resilience. That, despite the horror suffered, their ancestors survived the ultimate test in human endurance: the MIDDLE PASSAGE.

So long kossacks, next week I’m off to South Africa. Make of this rather long diary what you will.